Jun 14, 2011

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A Tribute to My Bubbie

A Tribute to My Bubbie

I was 4-years-old when someone asked me, “Is this beautiful woman your grandmother?” “No!” I angrily replied, “She is my Bubbie.” Everyone laughed at my answer, but I wasn’t joking. I believed that anyone could be a grandmother but only the most special women were worthy of the appellation ‘Bubbie’.

My Bubbie Rena is the antithesis of popular culture’s representation of a Bubbie, an old, grey-haired Jewish woman who is constantly giving guilt trips and urging you to, “Eat, eat… You’re skin and bones.” In fact, her eagle eyes are more accurate than any scale. One time, after a visit to Toronto, she grabbed me, held me tight, and whispered in my year, “Alana, promise me… Promise me that you will tell your mother to lose weight.”

Bubbie would sooner cross Madison than Delancey. She is, at 85 years young, still a strikingly beautiful woman. Pictures of her from the 1960s reveal a woman who looked like a cross between Elizabeth Taylor and Meryl Streep, piles of dark brown hair and pale green eyes beneath highly arched brows. She is somehow able to further arch one of those brows when she is displeased – known and feared as “the eyebrow” by my family. In Rena’s own accented words, “I am not critical. I’m honest.”

When I was younger, I would sleep over at her house on Wednesday night, wear one of her peignoir sets, and watch Dynasty. She knew I meant it as a compliment when I told her she reminded me of Alexis Carrington Colby Dexter. I loved to try on her fabulous jewelry, her feather boa, and her Bain de Versailles perfume.

You must forgive her the vanity and seeming shallowness. Her life was quite literally saved by her looks. She was born to privilege in a small Polish town where her father owned the brick factory and her family numbered among the few Jews. They were so assimilated that they would even put up a Christmas tree, but such assimilation did not matter as Hilter’s army marched across Europe. Initially put in the ghetto in nearby Radom, her father was able to purchase false papers for the entire family and they separated to live out the war as Gentile Poles.

My Bubbie left her family in her early teens to work as a maid for family in Warsaw. She attended Mass and was never caught out by suspicious Nazis since she spoke high Polish and not a word of Yiddish. Tragically, she was arrested and put in Warsaw’s Pavia prison when the family for whom she worked was discovered to be hiding, not employing, Jews. Her secret was still safe if she was not.

A handsome young man, watching her from the prison workshop as she walked in the exercise yard, became intrigued by her beauty. He approached her and told her, “I know what you are.” Rena, then known as Anna Louise, was naturally terrified. This man, Max, told her that he too was a Jew with false papers. He made her winter boots, brought her food when he could, and, free to move about the prison office as a favorite of the German guards, kept putting my Bubbie’s file to the bottom of the pile marked euphamistically ‘deportation’.

Rena/Anna Louise was eventually moved to a work camp in Germany, Ravensbruck. After she was liberated, she did what people were doing all over Europe – she took a train back to Poland to see who, if anyone, was still alive. At one of those train stations on her way back home, she struck up a conversation with a stranger. When she told the woman she had been in Pavia Prison, the woman grabbed her and said, “Do you know Anna? My friend Max is looking for Anna.” Shocked and slightly terrified, Rena admitted to the woman that she was Max’s Anna and told her the name of her hometown.

Rena’s father and three sisters returned home, but her mother and younger brother Morris did not. She soon had a visitor – Max – who asked for her hand in marriage. She told him he was crazy and far too young but he told her he would be back. In a twist of fate, Max got in a car accident and was in traction for weeks; during that time my Bubbie met my Zaidy Sam and was encouraged by her father to get married as soon as possible and start life anew. Max returned with a picture of himself in his hospital bed and, upon learning of her marriage, asked Rena to run away with him.

She did not; instead she travelled with my Zaidy to live in Germany, then Brighton Beach, Brooklyn where she finally learned Yiddish, and then at last Toronto, Canada. Max married and lived in Vienna, Israel, Italy, and settled in Montreal, Canada. Both couples had two children – a boy and a girl each – and they would see one another at various survivor events or through mutual friends. Max would always tease Sam, “You stole my girl.” On the silent but color film of my parents’ wedding, Max sits at a table with his wife, smoking a cigarette, wearing sunglasses and an orange tuxedo shirt.

My grandparents dealt with their unrecoverable losses by trying to recover tangible items that were taken or left in Europe. My grandfather collected the china figurines, crystals, and antique jewelry that once crowded his family store. My grandmother and her sisters, if not in Pucci, frequented the Toronto couturier Maggie Reeves who made them ballgowns of beauty and complexity matched only by the sisters themselves. The shoes that my hot-blooded Bubbie would throw at my Zaidy’s head during one of their fights were Charles Jordan or Maude Frizon, and when my Zaidy would ask, “Who raised you?” her answer was, “Hilter.”

When my Zaida Sam died and left Rena a devastated widow at age 52, many of his (married) friends offered her carnal comfort at the shiva. It took a year for her to take down the severe bun she adopted soon after his death and she wore the same black cardigan until my mother threatened to burn it. She dated a few nice men over the next nine years but nothing stuck until the day she got a call from Max.

His wife had died after a long battle with cancer. After the seven days of the shiva were over, Max called Rena and said, “Rennie, ve getting merried” (the story just isn’t the same without the accent). They married a year later in a beautiful wedding at my aunt and uncle’s home. My mom and aunt went all-out since Rena’s first wedding was in a displaced persons camp in post-war Poland. Rena wore a gorgeous white dress, by Maggie Reeves of course. Under the chupah Max held Rena’s hands and said, “I have been waiting for this day for forty years.”

They have been married now for close to 23 years. My cousins and I still have not stopped laughing over the sponges we found taped to the back of their headboard.  My husband loves the lingerie Rena’s buys for me when she sees the flannel jammies and plain bras I usually buy. “Alana, a man wants to see a woman look beautiful in bed. Not that you should have sex every night… For sure not at my age!”

This is a woman who survived one of history’s greatest atrocities and survived it with her lust for life, sense of humor, and tremendous capacity for love intact. She epitomizes the saying that “living well is the best revenge.”

Her two children, five grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren live, not in the shadow of her unspeakable past, but in the light of her love and the legacy of her example to find a silver, but preferably platinum, lining.

Bubbie Rena and Max recently visited us in New York. My girls were sitting around some days later discussing names, how Sloane was named after my husband’s grandmother Sadie and my Zaida Sam. I explained that Ashkenazi Jews name their children after people who have passed away and whose spirit they wish to honor. My ever-sensitive Sloane said, “I like the name Rena.”

I had to turn away to hide my tears of sadness and pride, thinking of the day when I would be a Bubbie and my Bubbie would not be there to witness it. True to form, and ever my Bubbie’s granddaughter, I turned back to Sloane and said, “Rena is a old-fashioned name. What about using the ‘R’ and the name ‘Ridley’?” I wasn’t being critical, just honest.

  1. What a beautiful story! I had a Bubbie and so do my kids; yours sounds really special. I loved reading this!

  2. Mary Jo says:

    Wonderful story. Important bit of history, as well as an important story of Love. Thank you for sharing this story of your Bubbie.

  3. The most beautiful story, of course, I’m balling but loved every minute!

  4. well done, lani.

  5. Michelle says:

    Beautiful. You make your Bubbie proud, I’m sure.

  6. Wow. What an amazing story and wonderful memories! This story, like some others I have heard remind me that true love always prevails and finds it’s way home – even if it takes decades.

  7. What a treasure and delight to read. Your bubbie’s zest for life, love for her family, fashion appreciation, beauty, and sense of humor is perpetuated in YOU!!! XXOO

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